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Smart Water Meters, Dumb Meters, No Meters

Every single water user — residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural — should have an accurate water meter.

How is it possible that a place like California, with such a long and painful history of water problems, remains so far behind the curve of smart water management? How is it really possible that things considered basic, fundamental, taken-for-granted in other places are still missing here? And are water managers and users so insular that they really think they’re doing a good job with water?

That’s a rhetorical question: California is not ahead of the curve in anything “water.” It is dealing with 21st century water problems with 20th century (or is it 19th century) water policy and politics. Some remarkable, innovative efforts are underway, but they remain the exception, not the rule.

To what do I refer? Well, it could be the complete lack of comprehensive groundwater monitoring and management — a fact that stuns my colleagues overseas (and even in other states, and even a remarkably high-ranking official in state government here). It could be the inability to figure out how to put in place permanent, comprehensive water efficiency programs. It could be the archaic agricultural water policies. It could be the inability to properly develop desalination in a way the both provides safe, reliable water but also protects the public interest with environmental protection, transparency, and financial rationality.

But no. This time I mean water meters. Every single water user — residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural — should have an accurate water meter. And every single user should pay for each gallon of water use, preferably with the price rising with the volume. Again, the fact that this is not the case stuns my water colleagues from other places. And it should. It is an outrage in a place where water is scarce, contested, and still used so wastefully that water use should not be accurately measured and charged.

But of course it isn’t. The people without meters, or people with old “dumb” meters unable to be read remotely or provide detailed information to users, would be at risk of paying more (some would pay less, but some would certainly pay more). People without meters can use, and waste, as much water as they want and no one takes them to task. It is the tragedy of the commons, writ large. And somehow, these self-interested people have been able to influence politicians against taking action to the detriment of the rest of the state, the environment, and all other water users.

Water Numbers:
To date, Sacramento still has meters in only 25 percent of its houses and has no intention to meter everyone in a reasonable time period. And they’ve made ridiculous arguments that it would cost too much to put meters in. The Sacramento City Council has authorized a first phase to put in 1,735 meters for $20 million. Explain, then, how come the City of Ottawa will spend $25 million to install 190,000 smart meters? In the arid San Joaquin Valley, south of Sacramento, more than half of all residents are not metered. Fresno, the region’s largest city, charges single-family households a flat rate, regardless of how much water they use. And what do you know? Fresno’s water rates are among the lowest, and their water use among the highest, of anyone’s in California. Average Fresno residential use is 290 gallons per person per day. The state average is 135. For the same amount of water (22,440 gallons, more than enough for a family of four for a month) City of Fresno customers pay, on average, a monthly water rate of only $28.33, compared with San Francisco’s $89.57 and San Diego’s $95.48 (see the figure below). At least Fresno is beginning to slowly add meters.

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